Even a student who knows everything will usually drop a few marks in an exam; getting 100% is pretty unusual. What I tell my classes is that there are several reasons to lose marks and some are much easier to fix than others.
Students should know ahead of the exam how many marks there are and how much time they have. This will give them a rough idea of how much ‘time’ each mark is worth. Some will be ‘easier’ marks than others, for example straightforward recall questions or writing in the units. They need to be in the habit of checking every question, either as they finish it or a few minutes before the end. Don’t leave gaps, especially on multiple choice. Don’t get bogged down on a hard question, it’s okay to leave it as long as they remember to come back. Underlining or highlighting key words or figures may help them to focus their answer. Don’t forget to check diagrams or graphs for clues, such as labels of quantities (a graph showing changing resistance with temperature is much more likely to be a thermistor than an LDR, for example) or values that they can put into an equation.
Normally students should aim for one fact per mark available. Usually, there will be ‘spare’ marks. This means that if there are three marks, there will be four or five things they can write to gain marks, up to a maximum of three. Students may find it useful to follow the steps below if they have time – in their heads, rather than on paper! Sharing this sort of explicit, step-by-step thinking can help them to identify where they miss out on marks.
- Which single words or phrases will be part of the answer of explanation? (e.g. resultant force, drag, terminal velocity.)
- Consider the answer as three bullet points.
- Write three sentences, each based on a bullet point, in a sensible order.
- Sanity check – does it make sense?
Printable: wordyQs as A3 pdf
They will often need to show that they can apply maths to a science situation. Of course, this doesn’t stop them complaining, “But this is a science lesson!” Doing lots of practice questions is of course the best way to build confidence, but in an exam sitaution following a set method can help to avoid missed marks.
- What data do I have? Does it need converting? (e.g. kilometres into metres)
- Which equation do I need to use? Do I need to rearrange it?
- Substitute data into the equation.
- Reach for the calculator so you can write down the answer.
- Include the units.
- Sanity check – does it make sense?
Printable: MathsQs as A3 pdf
Usually there will be consolation marks for having some part of the working correct, perhaps substituting in the correct values or using the correct equation, even if it all goes wrong before the final answer. These can only be awarded if the examiner can see the working, so it must be written down clearly. If they gain four consolation marks on a fifty mark paper, that’s 8% – probably close to an extra grade.
Everyone gets nervous about something. Exams have a lot of the triggers that make people anxious – lots of people, enclosed space, implications for the future, status, feelings of isolation – and learning how to move past all that can make a big difference to how well they achieve. There are all kinds of strategies students can use to help them relax enough so that they can demonstrate what they know. Some may have calming techniques they have used in other situations (drama or music performances, for example) but would never have considered using in exams.
- Being familiar with the exam format and equipment needed so they feel prepared.
- Confidence with the content – this is where knowing revision was thorough and well-structured helps.
- Something which makes them feel better may not have magic powers, but a lucky charm can still help them relax – so it helps.
- They may find a prayer, mantra (I always liked The Litany Against Fear myself) or just a few minutes of meditation helps them calm down.
- There’s fairly strong evidence that smell is a ‘short-cut’ to emotions. A tissue with Mum’s perfume or boyfriend’s aftershave may promote safe, calm, happy feelings. (If not, they might want to change their boyfriend…)
Last of all, I pass on advice from my maths teacher (thank you, Ms Barry) many years ago:
“If in doubt, panic. Put your pen down, your head in your hands, and close your eyes. Go through all the possible terrible outcomes. A poor result, so no job. Teachers give up. Parents disown you, you’ll end up friendless and alone, with no hope… and this is when you realise that things aren’t really that bad, and you can get on with it. The couple of minutes letting the panic out may be enough for you to leave it behind, and concentrate.”
If they’re generally stressed, rather than suffering from exam panic, it really is worth doing something about it sooner rather than later. You may have a school counsellor you can direct them to, or something organised through the pastoral system. If they know they are susceptible to panic attacks or similar, it might be worth looking into more structured help, such as that offered by Mind or The Site. There are also some tips available through the Skoool website (worth checking our for general revision materials too).
You can even use anxiety to teach them a bit of science: When they get nervous, scared or excited, adrenalin floods their system, speeding pulse and breathing. This is fantastic if you’re being chased by a lion but of very little use in an exam hall.